Is Todd Haynes one of America's best directors, or merely its most talented pastiche artist? With the exception of 1995's Safe (his one unassailable achievement for many critics), all his work starts from explicitly defined frames of reference; he's come as close as anyone ever will to mainstreaming (his collegiate study of) semiotics. Looking at Poison twenty years later, it's striking to notice how relatively unpolished the film is in summoning the appropriate visual benchmarks for its three segments compared to I'm Not There's flawless evocation of 8 1/2 or Far From Heaven's master class in Douglas Sirk's aesthetics.
Poison, too, has its modes, heroically attempted on a much lower budget. "Hero" mocks the flat hysteria of local TV documentaries, featuring a cast of recalcitrant, inexplicably defensive interviewees and unrevealing context in the story of a boy who, mother says, flew up to the sky as an angel after shooting his father. "Horror"—a straight AIDS allegory barely disguised as 50s horror tribute—gets some of the black-and-white shading and lighting right in the tale of a scientist who ingests pure liquid "sex drive," only to find himself seriously ill. The metaphor is obvious: the facial scarring suggests leprosy and lesions without being quite either. The pasted-on nature is obvious, but when it drips into a hot dog it suggests bodily decay more vividly than a literal rendition. In "Homo,"appropriately, Haynes more or less creates his own modes, with rapturously sunlit pastorals of youthful sexual awakening in a JD offenders facility juxtaposing with dark blue prison spaces, like a gayed-up Escape From Alcatraz. Others had filmed Jean Genet before, but Haynes went way beyond, say, the odd sight of Paul Mazursky and Leonard Nimoy doing homoerotic prison battle in 1966's Deathwatch.
Those storytelling reference switches are arguably more crucial to what endures in Poison, long after the firestorm of controversy that surrounded its initial release has mostly passed into legend. Applying for an NEA grant in 1990, Haynes was unnerved by a requirement introduced by new chairman John Frohnmayer in which artists had to promise, in writing, that the final product wouldn't be obscene. A bemused Haynes replied that that might be a matter of interpretation, and in short order Frohnmayer—already at odds with George Bush's administration—decided to use the film as his fundamental talking point under pressure. The film was denounced by the usual predictable suspects, foremost among them the Reverend Donald Wildmon, who'd built a whole career out of protests: not picky in his targets, he was incensed by The Last Temptation of Christ, Ghost, Quantum Leap and Burger King at various points. Jesse Helms denounced the film on the Senate floor. The Southern Baptist Convention's Jim Smith sneered "I've seen more artistically meritorious productions on America's Funniest Home Videos. "Frohnmayer would resign the next year, and the Poison controversy isn't quite as well remembered as, say, the similar NEA problems of Robert Mapplethorpe.
Haynes was very clear on not wanting to be pigeonholed as a "gay"filmmaker: his work deals with outsiders of all kinds. Poison is his only film to traffic in confrontational homoerotics (as opposed to Velvet Goldmine's slyer reclaiming of glam rock's spectacle), and "Homo"is the only segment that doesn't feel like an obscure joke on storytelling tradition. All three segments have their longueurs: intercutting between them can only begin to cover how much of this is theoretical, and the film never approaches full-on disorienting frenzy. But "Homo"packs a real punch, and not only because of the infamous spitting sequence that closes it out: in formulating a head-spinning mixture of degradation as turn-on and freedom within incarceration, Haynes isn't breaking new thematic ground but filming it in a way that still feels defiantly unlike anything else out there. Without any movies to borrow from, it's still a mold-setter rather than mode-tweaker. "Homo"gets good, uneasy laughs from its deadpan gaze at suburban Long Island; the cheapness fits. Only "Horror"consistently flags, replicating a bad 50s movie with a strident metaphor only too well.
What's really interesting about Poison is its embryonic conception of the kind of polyphonic intercutting Haynes would increasingly ratchet up in Velvet Goldmine and I'm Still Here. "Straight"storytelling (in both senses) isn't his big interest: the friction between various kinds of flawlessly assimilated idioms is, getting more and more momentum from mashing everything up. Poison cuts when the scene is done, with the viewer internally timing how far things have come along, One dramatic beat equals one scene. Often attacked as a cold filmmaker, Haynes gains a lot from being able to butt his many, considerable influence up against each other. In Poison, he's worked it out theoretically, with an angry edge that's understandable. Paradoxically, though, that naked rage blunts his best asset: backpedaling the content, foregrounding the aesthetic. 20 years on, Poison isn't like the recent revival of Angels In America—both a fully formed piece of art and a time capsule that reminds us that some things (if not enough quite yet) have thankfully changed. Haynes never made another film like this, and in some ways he didn't need to.
Opens November 10 at IFC Center